MELVILLE: Moby Dick [Chapters 74-81]

Welcome to Part 12 of this series on Moby Dick. In this lecture, we will discuss Chapters 74-81

In Chapter 74, Ishmael discusses the features of the Sperm Whale’s head. One particularly strange characteristic of the Sperm Whale’s head is the position of its eyes. One eye is located on one side of its massive head, and the other eye is located on the opposite side. Thus, the Sperm Whale cannot see in front of its body, but rather only to its sides. Ishmael remarks that the Sperm Whale must be extraordinarily intelligent to coordinate the two distinct images produced by its eyes. “Is his brain so much more comprehensive, combining, and subtle than man’s, that he can at the same moment of time attentively examine two distinct prospects, one on one side of him, and the other in an exactly opposite direction? If he can, then is it as marvellous a thing in him, as if a man were able simultaneously to go through the demonstrations of two distinct problems in Euclid.”

In Chapter 75, Ishmael discusses the features of the Right Whale’s head. He states that the Right Whale’s head is less dignified than the Sperm Whale’s; and that the two heads are entirely different from one another. “In the Right Whale’s there is no great well of sperm; no ivory teeth at all; no long, slender mandible of a lower jaw, like the Sperm Whale’s. Nor in the Sperm Whale are there any of those blinds of bone; no huge lower lip; and scarcely anything of a tongue. Again, the Right Whale has two external spout-holes, the Sperm Whale only one.”

In Chapter 76, Ishmael expresses his awe at the vast body of the Sperm Whale – “all obedient to one volition, as the smallest insect.” It is shocking that the same immaterial will that compels the body of a fly can also compel the immense body of a whale. This truth leads one to consider whether one immaterial will – such as a God – can compel the motion of the entire universe.

In Chapter 77, Ishmael describes the contents of the Sperm Whale’s head. The upper part of the head contains the valuable spermaceti, which is used to make candles and certain medicines. “A large whale’s case generally yields about five hundred gallons of sperm.”

In Chapter 78, Tashtego begins to tap the whale, which is the process by which whalers withdraw the sperm from a whale’s head. During the procedure, Tashtego slips and falls into the whale’s head. While the other crew members try to extract Tashtego from the head, the tackle that is holding the head above the water breaks, and Tashtego and the head fall into the sea. “Diving after the slowly descending head, Queequeg with his keen sword had made side lunges near its bottom, so as to scuttle a large hole there; then dropping his sword, had thrust his long arm far inwards and upwards, and so hauled out poor Tash by the head.”

In Chapter 79, Ishmael attempts to use physiognomy to judge the character of the Sperm Whale. Physiognomy is a 19th century science that made judgments about a person’s character based upon the features of one’s face. When Ishmael applies this science to the face of a Sperm Whale, he concludes that the science is useless. “Champollion deciphered the wrinkled granite hieroglyphics. But there is no Champollion to decipher the Egypt of every man’s and every being’s face. Physiognomy, like every other human science, is but a passing fable. If then, Sir William Jones, who read in thirty languages, could not read the simplest peasant’s face in its profounder and more subtle meanings, how may unlettered Ishmael hope to read the awful Chaldee of the Sperm Whale’s brow? I but put that brow before you. Read it if you can.”

In Chapter 80, Ishmael applies phrenology to the Sperm Whale’s head. Phrenology is the 19th century science that made judgments about a person’s character based upon the shape of one’s head. Ishmael also dismisses this science as worthless. “I consider that the phrenologists have omitted an important thing in not pushing their investigations from the cerebellum through the spinal canal. For I believe that much of a man’s character will be found betokened in his backbone. I would rather feel your spine than your skull, whoever you are. A thin joist of a spine never yet upheld a full and noble soul.” The Sperm Whale’s spine is strong and massive, indicating that the animal is noble.

In Chapter 81, the Pequod encounters another ship called the Jungfrau, which means ‘Virgin’ in German. The crew members of the Jungfrau are amateur whalers, and beg the Pequod for oil. Starbuck obliges them, and then they return to their ship. Shortly after the meeting, both ships spot a pod of whales. Both ships chase after the whales, and the Jungfrau vainly tries to prevent the Pequod’s crew from reaching the whales first. The Pequod kills a whale, but when they bring it back to the ship, the whale begins to sink, forcing the crew to forfeit their prize.

During the battle with the Sperm Whale, Ishmael observes the striking contrast between the relative calm on the surface of the sea and the extreme anguish and convulsions of the Whale several hundred feet beneath the surface. “As the three boats lay there on that gently rolling sea, gazing down into its eternal blue noon; and as not a single groan or cry of any sort, nay, not so much as a ripple or a bubble came up from its depths; what landsman would have thought, that beneath all that silence and placidity, the utmost monster of the seas was writhing and wrenching in agony!” This disparity is analogous to the disparity between the superficial features of people and their inner struggles.

Don’t forget to subscribe and join us for Part 13 of this series on Moby Dick.

Chapter 74
“Is his brain so much more comprehensive, combining, and subtle than man’s, that he can at the same moment of time attentively examine two distinct prospects, one on one side of him, and the other in an exactly opposite direction? If he can, then is it as marvellous a thing in him, as if a man were able simultaneously to go through the demonstrations of two distinct problems in Euclid.”

Chapter 75
“Can you catch the expression of the Sperm Whale’s there? It is the same he died with, only some of the longer wrinkles in the forehead seem now faded away. I think his broad brow to be full of a prairie-like placidity, born of a speculative indifference as to death. But mark the other head’s expression. See that amazing lower lip, pressed by accident against the vessel’s side, so as firmly to embrace the jaw. Does not this whole head seem to speak of an enormous practical resolution in facing death? This Right Whale I take to have been a Stoic; the Sperm Whale, a Platonian, who might have taken up Spinoza in his latter years.”

Chapter 76
“Unerringly impelling this dead, impregnable, uninjurable wall, and this most buoyant thing within; there swims behind it all a mass of tremendous life, only to be adequately estimated as piled wood is—by the cord; and all obedient to one volition, as the smallest insect.”

Chapter 77
“A large whale’s case generally yields about five hundred gallons of sperm.”

Chapter 78
“Diving after the slowly descending head, Queequeg with his keen sword had made side lunges near its bottom, so as to scuttle a large hole there; then dropping his sword, had thrust his long arm far inwards and upwards, and so hauled out poor Tash by the head.”

“Now, had Tashtego perished in that head, it had been a very precious perishing; smothered in the very whitest and daintiest of fragrant spermaceti; coffined, hearsed, and tombed in the secret inner chamber and sanctum sanctorum of the whale. Only one sweeter end can readily be recalled—the delicious death of an Ohio honey-hunter, who seeking honey in the crotch of a hollow tree, found such exceeding store of it, that leaning too far over, it sucked him in, so that he died embalmed. How many, think ye, have likewise fallen into Plato’s honey head, and sweetly perished there?”

Chapter 79
“Champollion deciphered the wrinkled granite hieroglyphics. But there is no Champollion to decipher the Egypt of every man’s and every being’s face. Physiognomy, like every other human science, is but a passing fable. If then, Sir William Jones, who read in thirty languages, could not read the simplest peasant’s face in its profounder and more subtle meanings, how may unlettered Ishmael hope to read the awful Chaldee of the Sperm Whale’s brow? I but put that brow before you. Read it if you can.”

Chapter 80
“I consider that the phrenologists have omitted an important thing in not pushing their investigations from the cerebellum through the spinal canal. For I believe that much of a man’s character will be found betokened in his backbone. I would rather feel your spine than your skull, whoever you are. A thin joist of a spine never yet upheld a full and noble soul. I rejoice in my spine, as in the firm audacious staff of that flag which I fling half out to the world.”

Chapter 81
“As the three boats lay there on that gently rolling sea, gazing down into its eternal blue noon; and as not a single groan or cry of any sort, nay, not so much as a ripple or a bubble came up from its depths; what landsman would have thought, that beneath all that silence and placidity, the utmost monster of the seas was writhing and wrenching in agony! Not eight inches of perpendicular rope were visible at the bows. Seems it credible that by three such thin threads the great Leviathan was suspended like the big weight to an eight day clock. Suspended? and to what? To three bits of board. Is this the creature of whom it was once so triumphantly said—”Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish-spears? The sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold, the spear, the dart, nor the habergeon: he esteemeth iron as straw; the arrow cannot make him flee; darts are counted as stubble; he laugheth at the shaking of a spear!” This the creature? this he? Oh! that unfulfilments should follow the prophets. For with the strength of a thousand thighs in his tail, Leviathan had run his head under the mountains of the sea, to hide him from the Pequod’s fish-spears!
In that sloping afternoon sunlight, the shadows that the three boats sent down beneath the surface, must have been long enough and broad enough to shade half Xerxes’ army. Who can tell how appalling to the wounded whale must have been such huge phantoms flitting over his head!”

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